Possibly the most heart-wrenching moment at the movies last year was inPixar's Inside Out when Riley's imaginary friend Bing Bong dies — or at least fades out of her memory.
I loved Bing Bong's character. When he first appeared on screen I was unsure whether he was friend or foe, or if he could be trusted at all, but now, as far as I'm concerned, he basically represents everything that is right with the world!
For this reason I was determined to find a way for him to still exist, but in order to do that I first had to gain a full understanding of imaginary friends. Pixar's understanding of psychology was surprisingly accurate, and their portrayal of imaginary friends was no exception.
If reading is not your jam, the good news you can watch my full video on the subject here:
Because Riley Is A Female And An Only Child, She's More Likely To Have An Imaginary Friend
As it turns out, Riley is basically the perfect candidate for an imaginary friend. While anyone can have one, they are most common in only children and/or eldest children and more common amongst females.
Only/eldest children are more likely to have imaginary friends for basically the same reason: They don’t have anyone else to play with so they invent a friend. Females are a little more likely to have them because they seek more feedback from others than males.
So yes, Riley as an only child and a girl (who, on an unrelated note, is possibly adopted full explanation here, and here) is a prime candidate for an imaginary friend. We see her have a lot of adventures with Bing Bong as a kid: Playing in a band, World Championship Tag, Radio Flyer rockets trips — standard kid stuff. Their adventures seem so memorable, which begs the question, can you really forget your imaginary friend when you grow up?
Or does that only happen when the joy center of your brain ventures down into the inner workings of long-term memory, befriends an old imaginary friend who, in a fearsome attempt to make it back to the control room, tragically and heroically dies in a pit of diminishing memories?
Types Of Imaginary Friends
Not only did they have great adventures, but Bing Bong is pretty well thought out, combining an elephant, cat, cotton candy and dolphin is pretty creative for a 3-year-old. We even see her draw a crude version of his appearance on a the wall. Surely having such a vivid picture of him should make him less prone to being forgotten, right?
Alas, imaginary friends come in all shapes and sizes and no amount of detail makes them more or less forgettable. Imaginary friends can be human, animal, a combination of things like Bing Bong, or even have no real shape at all, sometimes just acting as a presence for the child to interact with.
In other cases imaginary friends are not imaginary at all, they are what is known as a personified object. This is when a kid projects a personality on to a toy or other object and begins interacting with it like it's a real friend.
It's worth noting that just playing with toys isn’t the same as having a “personified object,” personified means they treat them like they are actually alive. Think Calvin and Hobbes; to Calvin, Hobbes is completely alive, but when his parents are around we see that he just a stuffed animal.
So, Are Imaginary Friends A Good Thing?
If this is starting to sound a little weird, don't worry, there is no reason for concern. Imaginary friends are very normal and for a lot of kids they present a way for them to test boundaries, imagine consequences and practice empathy or social skills.
Sadly though, it turns out it's extremely common for kids to forget their imaginary friends to the point where they are unaware they even had one. This is because most imaginary friends come about when you are about 3 and normally “die” off by the time you are 4 or so.
But, just because kids might forget them doesn’t mean parents do. Parents likely have a better memory of their kids' imaginary friends than they do, which means...
Bing Bong could be alive in Riley’s parents' heads!
I wonder if he would still look the same...
To delve more into Riley's psychology, have a read through this too.